Volume 30

Accessing Justice in Hybrid Courts: Addressing the Needs of Low-Income Litigants in Blended in-Person and Virtual Proceedings

by Katherine L.W. Norton

The COVID-19 pandemic forced courts across the country to close their doors to in-person proceedings. Courts had to quickly adopt remote technologies that they ignored for years to keep courts operational. As courts have re-opened, courts have maintained hybrid court processes recognizing the benefits that hybrid courts offer for judicial efficiency. However, due to the speed with which courts adopted new hybrid court models they were often developed haphazardly. As they continue to evolve, states have left significant discretion in the design to individual courts and often individual judges, creating inconsistencies in the process. Lawyers and judges have been able to quickly adopt their practices to utilize these new hybrid court systems. Yet, eighty to ninety percent of cases have at least one unrepresented party, often of low-income. Low-income unrepresented litigants make up the lion’s share of individuals utilizing the civil legal system, and they seem to have been left out of the equation as the hybrid court models have been developed. Despite the fact that low-income litigants make up the majority of litigants in the civil justice system, the hybrid courts recently designed have made it more difficult for these unrepresented litigants to access the court system. Hybrid court models have been around since the early 1990s, and models developed just prior to the pandemic focused on increasing access to justice for low-income individuals. Courts need to take a step back and carefully consider how to evolve their hybrid court models using information gathered from the pre- pandemic models, the current models, and the benefits and difficulties that have been realized from these models. Hybrid court models that are consist-ent, with a well explained process, combined with an option to opt-out of the technological components when they create barriers, as well as accessible locations with the available technology and assistance necessary can assure that low-income litigants are not barred from the “new” courthouse doors.

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